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62: Prior Knowledge--A Strange New Religion
A Strange New Religion

Here I go again, ridiculing one of the most popular and revered theories in modern education. Sorry. I’ve been bumping into this thing for many years and almost every time I would blink and wonder: what are they carrying on about? 

There seems to be nothing much there. But gussied up and artificially enlarged with sophistical steroids, artfully marketed with color brochures where so-called experts make shameless promises. The main one is: when it comes to learning something new, the important thing is what you’ve already learned. What?

Doesn’t that sound kind of silly on the face of it? That what you did last month or the year before is the heart of the matter. Do you feel ready to move forward and learn a lot of new stuff? Wrong! Prior Knowledge says you must stay permanently anchored in the past, and what you did before.
I remember one trivial anecdote I found on the Internet, where a first grade teacher BRAGGED that she spent the first two weeks taking an inventory of every child’s prior knowledge about reading. You wonder what the other children are doing while this teacher is laboriously asking each child the same questions. (Does she then follow the same procedure in every other subject?) 

One implication was that the teacher would now teach each child in a different way. So if there are 20 kids, the classroom is now divided into 20 sub-classrooms. Is that efficient? 

Suppose on the first few days she simply taught the children what she wanted them to know. Then, by asking some review questions of each child, she would quickly find which ones were behind and then you would focus on them for an hour or a day. In no time everybody’s up and running. 

But she can’t do this because she must start by assessing their Prior Knowledge. In short, teachers now have a recipe for wallowing in place. Apparently, public schools were moving too darn fast. 

Now you can more fully savor the far-fetched silliness that one of our experts outlined on the Internet: “A large body of findings shows that learning proceeds primarily from prior knowledge, and only secondarily from the presented materials. Prior knowledge can be at odds with the presented material, and consequently, learners will distort presented material. Neglect of prior knowledge can result in the audience learning something opposed to the educator's intentions, no matter how well those intentions are executed in an exhibit, book, or lecture.” 

(Note the premise that new learning comes from old knowledge. How is that even possible? Indeed, this paradoxical assertion is very similar to the one made by Whole Word, that readers bring meaning to the printed page, they don’t find meaning in the printed page. Isn’t that the silliest thing you’ve ever read? When you’re reading a newspaper, an ad, a label on a medicine bottle, you are not learning anything from the words in front of you. No, you are bringing the meaning to those words. Apparently you already know what the ad says and when to take the pills. Similarly when you hear a lecture at school, you are not learning anything from that lecture, you are activating your prior knowledge. That’s the revered theory.)

A professor pushing this stuff looks at three examples: sheep in Australia, hearing jazz for the first time, and the behavior of fish. The common assertion about all of these situations is that students will have some piece of misinformation in their head and they simply won’t be able to escape from it. Doesn’t that belief cry out for telling instructors to start off with an emphatic clarification of this possible misunderstanding? It would seem so to me. But what these experts imagine happening is that no matter what the teacher says, the students persist in being locked in to their prior knowledge about sheep, jazz, or fish.

That’s simply not how life works. The whole point of talking to someone, or listening to a lecture, or reading a book, is to take new information into your brain. If the author is credible, if the source is trustworthy, you’ll plant the new information directly on top of the old information, and in no time the old information is gone, surplanted. But not according to these experts.

Let’s examine just the first example: “Consider a hypothetical book on wool production in Australia. Australian ranchers raise sheep in an extremely hot desert climate. The sheep are raised to have wool so thick that without yearly trimmings the sheep would be unable to walk. To many children, these facts together are absurd. Children think wool is hot; if you put a thermometer inside a wool sweater, the mercury would go up (Lewis, 1991). Wouldn't sheep grow more wool in cold places where they need to stay warm? Is wool hot because the sheep absorb the desert warmth?”

 I just don’t get it. You tell me the situation. Unless I believe you’re a liar, I will absorb this info the same way that I’ve absorbed all the other new information that I’ve learned over the years. If, for example, the Guinness Book of World Records, which is full of wild stuff, says that somebody has jumped 35 feet, running with the wind, I accept that. I don’t sit there thinking: I must continue to believe, no, it’s 15 feet.

Here is more so-called research: “Interest in prior knowledge began with the careful documentation of common errors made by students in solving physics and mathematics problems. Analysis of interviews with these students reveals that the errors are not random slips, but rather derive from underlying concepts.”

This sounds like Ken Goodman’s weird forays into Miscue Analysis. And so what? If kids don’t understand something, the answer is to straighten them out, not to wallow endlessly in the misunderstanding. Isn’t it obvious the teachers didn’t do a very good job of teaching foundational knowledge? The students got all the way to some major exam but, Eureka, they are still locked into that knowledge they had when they showed up. Answer: teachers should teach better, not less. 

My broader thesis is that our Education Establishment specializes in concocting ruinous sophistries. And then they pretend they have done all this compelling research (“A large body of findings shows...”), collected evidence, statistics, etc. to justify their conclusions about Prior Knowledge. The fascinating pattern is that children are taught to look into the past for answers or to look inside themselves. They are told to look everywhere except at new facts shimmering in front of them.

Reading, studying, learning, all of these activities, instead of being full steam ahead, become plodding and counterproductive. Teachers spend their time taking inventory, even though their findings will be obsolete a week or two later. Meanwhile, children taught to read only marginally are trying to construct meanings or recall meanings. They’re supposed to look inwardly at what they already know and search for clues in the pictures on the page and then merge all that with whatever meanings emanate from the printed words. The process is cumbersome; and the fatal curse is built in: kids will stay mired in the old knowledge no matter what anyone does.  

Stop and think about it. if you’re in China and you’ve only memorized a few dozen ideograms and you are effectively illiterate in Chinese, you will do all the same exact procedures. Fumbling around with prior knowledge is just what everybody does when they’re up against an unknown code, whether Chinese, Sanskrit, or circuits inside a fuse box. If you can’t actually read the diagram, you necessarily have to resort to all kinds of dodges and guesses.

The broad pattern in all of American public education is that the authorities don’t want to teach much. What else can children do but flounder around? They know a few things. They see a few clues on the page. They’re supposed to spin that around and create some sort of nutritious meal. But what if children actually knew how to read and actually had foundation knowledge in the subject they are discussing?
A formative experience for me, which I have thought about a great deal, was basic training in the U.S. Army. There can’t be any more important skill for military operations than competence with firearms. But not once did the military ask me if I knew anything about guns, had ever held or fired a gun? If you wallow in prior knowledge, the theory and practice, you will be amazed that the US Army could forget to inquire about all these things.

Here’s what I’ve realized. It’s profoundly irrelevant what prior experience each soldier has had. Some know a great deal, some know nothing. What difference does it make? Why waste time asking? Many people will have prior knowledge that is unconventional, misinformed, or wrong. The last thing you want to do is encourage that. So the efficient approach is to say to the recruits: here is a gun, here is how you hold it, here is how you take it apart, here’s how you fire it; let’s go to the rifle range and you will all become experts. This is real education.

More than anything else, Prior Knowledge appears to function (much like Cooperative Learning, see #34) to keep an entire class mired in one spot. These are pedagogies that seem more to serve collectivism than education. 

I have always been, by the way, a passionate advocate of “using the known as a bridge to the unknown.” As most children know about magnets, use that knowledge to teach them about gravity. At first glance, this method might seem to have common ground with Prior Knowledge. That’s not the case. The point of using the known as bridge or springboard into the unknown is to establish momentum, to make learning easier and faster.  What the professors seem to be doing with Prior Knowledge is to stop momentum altogether, to force everybody to look over their shoulder at what they learned last year, and then to squat there for a couple weeks. Instead of a forward-looking way to accelerate learning, Prior Knowledge is a backward-looking gimmick that actually seems intended to slow things down. If all children are advancing at a glacial pace, you have achieved what progressives call "equity" and the rest of us call dumbing-down.